By Maureen Tilley, PDt.
At last, the new and improved Canada’s food guide has been released. Previous guides have been criticized for being overly detailed and heavily influenced by the food industry, while the new guide has been simplified and revised based on evidence and input from healthcare professionals and the public.
Among its improvements, the milk and alternatives and meat and alternatives have taken a shift, being combined together and renamed the protein group. Within this group, less emphasis is placed on animal products, while plant-based proteins (tofu, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, nut butters) are brought more to the forefront.
The key message is not to go vegan. Animal products can have a positive role in our food system, our health and food preferences—a shift to more plant-based eating is beneficial.
An individual’s reason for reducing consumption of animal products can vary depending on circumstances and values. These include minimizing environmental impact, animal welfare, benefits to health or managing current conditions and/or decreasing food cost. This shift to more meatless options has already taken place. In fact, a study shows 6.4 million Canadians have reduced their meat intake or taken it out completely, and 32 per cent of Canadians are contemplating reducing consumption in the next six months.
If decreasing/omitting animal products piques your interest, think about how to best approach change. There are many options from decreasing meat intake to more regimented types of vegetarian eating.
Flexitarian—eats mostly plant-based but will incorporate occasional animal products.
Pescatarian—eats fish but not other animal products.
Lacto-Ovo vegetarian—includes eggs and milk products only.
Lacto-vegetarian—only eats milk products, no other animal products.
Ovo-vegetarian —only eats eggs, no other animal products.
Vegan—avoids all animal products including honey and gelatin.
All vegetarian options can meet nutritional needs but the more restrictive the eating pattern, the more organization and planning that is required to ensure adequate intake of calcium, vitamin B12, iron, omega-3, etc.
Not interested in a regimented eating style? Simply aim to add meatless meals to your weekly menu or choose to go meatless one day a week. Meatless Monday is an international movement that advocates just that with more info and recipes to be found on their website. Try decreasing the amount of meat in a recipe and replacing it with a meatless option i.e. combine beef and canned black beans to make burgers.
Not up for new meatless options? Eat more traditional meals that incorporate legumes such as chili, a bean/lentil soup or salad, and baked beans. Maybe you just decrease that large meat portion on your plate and load up on more veggies. Keep in mind, regardless of the perceived “health” benefits of any eating pattern, we must look at the overall eating pattern, after all, French fries and candy are considered vegan.
Are vegetarians healthier than meat eaters? The long-term research is lacking but short-term has shown lower rates of chronic disease including death from heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, certain cancers, and lower cholesterol levels. Vegetarian foods tend to be high in disease fighting properties such as fibre, fruits and vegetables, healthier fats, lower in saturated fat (predominantly in animal products) and many vitamins and minerals.
Research has shown a direct correlation between increased disease and high intake of red meats, especially processed meat. Poultry and lean pork tend to have more a neutral impact on health. Positive health correlations have been seen with regular intake of certain fish and seafood and meatless protein options. Again, it’s difficult to determine if the benefit comes from decreasing animal products and/or high intake of plant-based options or a combination of both. What the research does consistently show is the benefits of incorporating plant-based food.
Most foods production has a carbon footprint but that footprint varies significantly, with livestock being the largest culprit. It is responsible for 18 per cent of all greenhouse gases, more than the entire transportation sector combined. To put it into perspective—if everyone avoided meat and cheese one day a week it would be equivalent to taking 7.6 million cars off the road. Harmful emissions are coming from production of methane, harvesting of feed, processing, storage and transportation. In chronological order, the top five carbon footprint producers include lamb, beef, cheese, pork, farmed salmon—while lentils, beans, and tofu are on the other end of the spectrum, producing 13-times less footprint than beef.
Beyond the individual responsibility, the greatest benefit comes from advocating for better climate control policies focusing on the air, soil, water and animal welfare.
Regardless of your income, food is expensive and expected to rise as much as 3.5 per cent this year—that’s approximately an extra $411/year per household. Despite produce and animal products being some of the most costly items, our meals tend to be heavier in animal products (and grains/starches) and lack in fruit and vegetables. Re-thinking our plate balance and our food budget balance may help to save money. Considering legumes cost $1 to $2/can while steak can cost $8 to $12/lb, adding more meatless options allows money to go towards other foods. Cookspiration is a great website and app to help with meal planning, grocery list, and provides easy quick recipes including meatless options.
Tips for easy and tasty meatless meals
Incorporating more legumes (bean, peas and lentils) or tofu can be done by trying new recipes, add/substitute into an existing recipes or meal or by simply opening a can. There are also lots of prepared meatless items available i.e. veggie burgers, sausages, sliced “meats”, hummus, but always check the label for sodium and fat content.
Dried legumes are the most economical option but require more work to soak overnight and boil for several hours (check out instructions for specific legume). The most convenient option is to purchase (no-added salt) canned legumes that are ready to add to a recipe. Dried lentils do not require soaking and cooking time is relatively short, 7 to 20 minutes, but they can be purchased in a can as well.
• Throw legumes over a salad. Seasoned roasted chickpeas add crunch or make a great snack on their own or in a trail mix. Purchase roasted or roast them.
• Mix lentils in with grains such as rice, couscous, and quinoa.
• Go Mexican and add black beans or kidney beans to an omelet with salsa. Add to tacos, quesadillas, taco salad, nachos, salsa and fajitas.
• Many Indian recipes incorporate legumes—enjoy chickpea curries and lentil dahl.
• Mediterranean dishes incorporate legumes from falafel (preferably baked), chickpea/mixed bean salads.
• Think beyond hummus as a dip and use as a spread/filling on a sandwich, burger, bagel, to replace the sauce on pizza, thin it with plain yogurt or oil as a salad dressing.
• Add lentils or other legumes to a pasta sauce, lasagna, stew and meatloaf. Red lentils cook up very small and soft and can be easily disguised.
• Search for baking recipes that include legumes such as muffins, cookies, brownies, and granola bars. Have you tried black bean brownies? They are well disguised and add to the delicious dense and moist texture.
Tofu—made from soybeans and can be added to many of the suggested dishes above. Soft tofu tends to be better blended in baking and smoothies while medium/firm is better in savoury dishes. Many people prefer to marinate it, and then bake or sauté prior to adding to savory recipe but it’s not necessary. Try breading in breadcrumbs or panko (Japanese breadcrumb) and bake. Asian-influenced dishes often include tofu. Add to stir fry, noodle or rice bowls and soups.
Edamame—This bean taste similar to green beans but has a more buttery texture and contains more protein and fibre. Serve it warm or cold in the pod (but do not eat the tough pod) or without. Enjoy as a side, over a salad or in a stir fry. Try it pureéd with seasonings as a delicious dip. They are found in the organic or vegetable freezers of the grocery store.
TVP—texturized vegetable protein is similar to ground meat. It’s purchased as a dry item and you simply add hot water, cover for several minutes, and it’s ready to be added to a recipe. It’s mild in taste so add to dishes with flavour such as lasagna, chili, spaghetti, tacos, and Sheppard’s pie. You can purchase it in the health food section or at a bulk store.
Tempeh—is a fermented pressed soybean. It can be found in the refrigerator of the health food section of many grocery stores. Its often marinated and eaten sliced, cubed or crumbled in various dishes such as stir fry, a burger or sandwich, on top of greens, finger sliced and dipped.
Seitan—is made from gluten protein (found at natural health stores or some restaurants). It’s typically baked into a loaf with various seasonings, thinly sliced and sautéed or grilled. It’s comparable to meat in texture and resemblance. It makes a great sliced meat alternative in a sandwich, over salad, stir fry, donair, on pizza.
For recipe websites, checkout Lentils Canada and Pulses Canada (Pulses is just another name for legumes), Meatless Monday or Minimalist Baker.
Word of caution: Many meatless protein options are high in fibre and can potentially cause bloating and gas. Rinsing legumes well and changing out the soaking water for fresh if boiling from dry can minimize this. The trick with high-fibre foods is slowly increasing your intake and then keep your intake relatively consistent.
And drink lots of water!
Header credit: Courtesy of Health Canada
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Intro credit: Courtesy of Health Canada
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